BrewHop founder Summer Nixon is eight months pregnant and drinking water from a swing-top glass beer bottle at Coronado Brewing Co.’s new manufacturing facility. She’s just delivered two flights of beer to the table while waiting for Coronado Brewing Co. co-founder Rick Chapman to join her.
It’s loud in here. The industrial sounds of pressure escaping massive steel kettles and the Tool song just audible enough to recognize it from the tasting room speakers has people occasionally looking at one another’s mouths to make out what they’re saying. The three dogs sitting at their owners’ feet don’t seem to mind the commotion. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume these dogs have laid in their fair share of San Diego County’s 84 breweries’ corresponding tasting rooms or brewpubs. In fact, just one stroll through North Park and it’s obvious craft beer is a popular passion of San Diego locals and a growing one among tourists.
Nixon is the founder of BrewHop, a personalized tour company that over the last seven years has formed partnerships with more than 70 breweries in San Diego. The Seattle native is absolutely entrenched in the scene and is one of the more respected authorities on the craft beer industry. Though beer tourism is a year-round attraction for the city, Nixon says it was in December 2013 that she really started to see an uptick in her business. She’s booked about a month in advance. This is unusual, since it’s March, and her peak season begins in July.
The craft beer scene in San Diego has been gaining steam since its mainstream revival in the late ’90s. In the last three years, the number of licenses has doubled and 32 breweries are expected to join the existing 84 before the year is out.
LEADING THE REVOLUTION
Many locals consider the beginning of the San Diego craft beer scene to have started in 1996 with the opening of Ballast Point, Stone Brewing Company and Coronado Brewing Co. The three 1996 breweries, with Karl Strauss, were situated in the four corners of San Diego County. They were in suburban and rural industrial areas. As the industry grew, it worked its way toward the urban core. Today, many attribute the revitalization of neighborhoods such as North Park and up-and-coming Imperial Beach to the craft beer culture.
“The gentrification of neighborhoods has been a benefit of the craft beer scene here in San Diego,” says Stone’s Sales Director Chad Heath. “From downtown, to North Park, South Park and surrounding areas, bars and restaurants that center on supporting local have helped shift these areas into some of the hippest parts of San Diego because you can enjoy great food and a craft beer from the brewery down the street. You can see the same effect happening in parts of Los Angeles as well.”
Mike Hess, of Mike Hess Brewing Company, is a North Park brewer. Hess, a former financial services professional, started brewing in his garage. In 2010, he opened for business as a nanobrewery. Opening day, 100 craft beer enthusiasts showed up and drank his entire inventory. He had to shut down for two weeks to replenish his stock. Eighteen months later, he signed a lease for a former JCPenney and Christian bookstore in North Park.
Hess went from making 300 barrels a year in his garage to 5,000 a year after signing the lease in March 2012 for his North Park brewery.
“Seven years ago, most of us wouldn’t have come here after dark,” Nixon says. North Park, which used to be a location for USO dances in the ‘40s before its decline, has turned around and recently landed on Forbes’ list of hippest neighborhoods.
IPA, short for India Pale Ale, is the fastest growing beer segment in craft beer sales. It’s characterized by hoppy flavor, generally high IBU (International Bitterness Units), and, until recently, high alcohol content. San Diego is known for its IPAs. In particular, it’s known for putting out IPAs that are lighter in color, lower in alcohol and a hop-forward taste. The taste is created by a dry-hopping technique in which brewers add hops a second time after the beer is fermenting. This style is generally associated with West Coast IPAs, but Hess (and many other San Diegans) insist a San Diego IPA is unique.
“Even ours are different than what’s farther up the coast,” Hess says. “They’re drier beers, also they finish less sweet. I’m seeing more people interested in sessional IPAs in the 3 to 5 percent (alcohol content) range. Usually it’s between 7 and 8 percent.”
Brandon Richards, Coronado Brewing.’s sales and marketing director, says Stone Brewing led San Diego’s IPA movement.
“We just really like hops here,” he says, adding that about 30 percent of all craft beer consumed comes from San Diego. It was 4 percent, he says, when Coronado Brewing Co. started. (Stone opened two weeks before Coronado.)
In 2012, Coronado bought a 20,000-square-foot facility in San Diego to boost manufacturing. It has seen 70 percent growth and more than doubled the annual number of barrels it produces.
As for the rapid growth of breweries, no one seems too concerned.
“Beer isn’t sitting on shelves,” says Coronado’s CEO Rick Chapman.
“Our market is moving faster than everyone else’s and has been for the last decade.”
THE MONEY SHOT
Stone, arguably one of San Diego’s most well-known craft beer brewers and distributors, and one of the original ’96ers, has never paid for advertising. Yet, the gargoyle imagery on its beer bottles is as recognizable as its bold flavors.
In 2005, Stone moved from a small facility in San Marcos to Escondido, where it opened its current brewery. The following year, it opened Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, a farm-to-table restaurant and one-acre beer garden. This allowed them to provide tours of the brewery as well as a dining-tasting experience that Heath attributes to a steady influx of tourists.
One thing that doesn’t stop at Stone, Heath says, is construction and expansion. In 2013, Stone added a second 120-barrel brewhouse and constructed Stone Packaging Hall, which is where its finished beers are bottled and kegged.
“I believe Stone and other great San Diego-based breweries are making a lot of great beers that are getting our region international attention,” says Heath.
San Diego Brewing Co. General Manager Karen Bernauer says the scene is set apart by collaboration between brewers and support from restaurants.
The National University Institute for Policy Research, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, reported craft brewers and brew pubs generated nearly $300 million in direct economic impact for San Diego County in 2011, based on $680.9 million in sales. That’s 1.5 times greater than Comic-Con International, the city’s largest annual convention. It’s estimated that 2,796 jobs were created or sustained by brewery industry jobs in 2011.
Brewery tourism in particular was found to be a year-round attraction. NUIPR’s research reported beer festivals alone attract nearly 100,000 attendees. The largest festival is San Diego Beer Week in November. More than 20,000 people attend and it’s estimated to have created 3,612 room nights and $469,307 in hotel revenue. A little more than half of brewery tourists, according to a University of North Carolina study, have an income more than $80,000. Many indicated a stay of three nights. Those who were traveling with friends or family were also staying at a hotel. On average, a brewery tourist will visit two breweries.
To help drive awareness to these events and local companies as well as create a united force among the breweries, the San Diego Brewers Guild was founded.
The guild hosts four annual events and supports 15 additional annual events.
To get more consumers involved, the SDBG started the Craft Coalition last summer. It has more than 200 members who have the option for behind-the-scenes tours and tasting room discounts.
To learn more about San Diego beer tours, visit brewhop.com.
For a visitor’s guide and to learn more about San Diego brewers and beer events, visit sandiegobrewersguild.org.